For those of us of a certain age who were nurtured on John Wayne movies, the Wild West was a place of gulches and bluffs, washes and buttes, cacti as high as trees and coyotes howling in the night. One never really believed it was ever like that for Jane Russell introduced an element of disbelief. But it is like that and what is even more amazing is that they are playing golf through it all.
In St Andrews golf is a part of one's life as distinct from being a way of life. Everyone, young and old, plays the game with the same determined indifference. But in St Andrews it has to be said that, thankfully, there isn't a lot else to do. It comes as a shock, however, to discover an entire community in the middle of the Arizona desert with the same predilection, sharing the same attitude. In America at large, golf may be a cherished and envied lifestyle, but in the snug community of Desert Mountain, golf is simply a part of the peoples' way of life.
Scottsdale, just outside Phoenix in Arizona, is a fashionable place to live in the US and, when one has experienced golf in the warm October sunshine, it can be appreciated why. There is an abundance of good golf courses at hand with facilities that are unsurpassed anywhere. Desert Mountain, however, has taken things to an altogether different level.
Lyle Anderson conceived of this community. He is better known in Europe as the proprietor of the Loch Lomond Golf Course that hosts the Scottish Open and he is clearly a man of vision to say nothing of enterprise. But if Loch Lomond is the jewel in his corporate crown, Desert Mountain has to be the orb and sceptre. This place is something else altogether.
This community of some 1,100 houses and little more than twice that in souls has six golf courses to play with. Jack Nicklaus (pictured) designed them all and he did it with some purpose for no two are alike and he built in more golfing variety in a few square miles than can be found in most golfing nation states. This is a society built around golf and it is not only a very successful community that has been created, it is also a very desirable one to live in for, quite apart from the sunshine, it is the most ecologically empathetic of places on the planet.
You can buy a plot of land here and you can build a house on it. But you can't build just any old house for what you build has to pass the most stringent regulations. Florida may have sold its soul to Disney and bling but Arizona preserves its heritage with almost fanatical enthusiasm. Amid the Saguaro forest of giant cacti, the six courses of Desert Mountain weave their way through dwellings that subtly blend into the mountain. This is an architect's wonderland for no two houses are the same yet none are obtrusive. All are characteristic of the area, some adobe-like, some with a low, ranch house look where you expect to find a horse hitched to a rail. All are subtly coloured in a wide variety of tones and shades that blend into the rugged surrounding mountains and scrubland of the desert. Arizona, and Desert Mountain in particular, know what they have going for them and they are seriously looking after it.
St Andrews is assuredly the birthplace of golf and Scotland the homeland that nurtured it, but Desert Mountain is where it has gone to college. This place is a golfing education from any standpoint but principally from that of architecture and ecology. The natural flora and fauna of the desert abounds and is enhanced by the courses. The giant cacti make for a completely new experience in the game but there are cacti of sorts that appear to jump at you and provide the clearest of motives for keeping the ball in play. There are humming birds and Gambels quail and a bizarre variety of desert pig, coyotes and jack rabbits and, most fascinating of all, a number of snakes. These are rarely seen but when you do it is certainly a never-to-be-forgotten experience - scary certainly, but when you have recovered and changed your underwear, you can't wait to find another one.
The real education is in the golf itself for these courses demand a level of concentration and attention way beyond the norm. Fitting courses into such a landscape was no easy task and it has only been accomplished by asking a lot of the player. Playing over gulches, although many would qualify as ravines, is the norm. From high tees with the rocks capes and giant cacti below to an island oasis of green is buttock-clenching stuff and not for the uncertain or the faint of heart. Some long holes require target shots to two 'transitions' as they are known here, islands of grass surrounded by rugged desert with the most breathtaking views of mountain backdrops.
This is as far removed from the links land of St Andrews as Earth is from Mars. It is America's contribution to the evolution of the game and it is a significant one.
Variety is what is wonderful about our great game, variety in the places where it is played and among the people that play it. Yet it is the similarities too that make it unique in all sport. The reward of a well-played shot is as satisfying at St Andrews as it is at Desert Mountain. The people who play the game share common characteristics of fraternity and although the sumptuous ambience of the Geronimo Clubhouse is somewhat different from anything that we have in St Andrews, there is something eerily familiar about my American friend, John Runyon's sympathetic nod as he marks my card on Chiricahua's 18th green.
|| 20 - OCTOBER 2004